Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Albuera

battle-of-albuera-large.jpg
Marshal Beresford disarming a Polish lancer at the Battle of Albuera. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Albuera​ - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Albuera was fought on May 16, 1811, and was part of the Peninsular War, which was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Armies & Commanders:

Allies

  • Marshal William Beresford
  • Lieutenant General Joaquin Blake
  • 35,884 men

French

  • Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult
  • 24,260 men

Battle of Albuera - Background:

Advancing north in early 1811, to support French efforts in Portugal, Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult invested the fortress city of Badajoz on January 27.

After stubborn Spanish resistance, the city fell on March 11. Learning of Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin's defeat at Barrosa the next day, Soult left a strong garrison under Marshal Édouard Mortier and retreated south with the bulk of his army. With his situation in Portugal improving, Viscount Wellington dispatched Marshal William Beresford to Badajoz with the goal of relieving the garrison.

Departing on March 15, Beresford learned of the city's fall and slowed the pace of his advance. Moving with 18,000 men, Beresford scattered a French force at Campo Maior on March 25, but was subsequently delayed by a wide range of logistical issues. Finally laying siege to Badajoz on May 4, the British were forced to cobble together a siege train by taking guns from the nearby fortress town of Elvas. Reinforced by the remnants of the Army of Estremadura and the arrival a Spanish army under General Joaquín Blake, Beresford's command numbered over 35,000 men.

Battle of Albuera - Soult Moves:

Underestimating the size of the Allied force, Soult gathered 25,000 men and began marching north to relieve the Badajoz. Earlier in the campaign, Wellington has met with Beresford and suggested the heights near Albuera as a strong position should Soult return. Utilizing information from his scouts, Beresford determined that Soult intended to move through the village on his way to Badajoz.

On May 15, Beresford's cavalry, under Brigadier General Robert Long, encountered the French near Santa Marta. Making a hasty retreat, Long abandoned the east bank of the Albuera River without a fight.

Battle of Albuera - Beresford Responds:

For this he was sacked by Beresford and replaced by Major General William Lumley. Through the day on the 15th, Beresford moved his army into positions overlooking the village and river. Placing Major General Charles Alten's King's German Legion Brigade in the village proper, Beresford deployed Major General John Hamilton's Portuguese division and his Portuguese cavalry on his left wing. Major General William Stewart's 2nd Division was placed directly behind the village. Through the night additional troops arrived and Blake's Spanish divisions were deployed to extend the line south.

Battle of Albuera - The French Plan:

Major General Lowry Cole's 4th Division arrived in the early morning of May 16 after marching south from Badajoz. Unaware that the Spanish had joined with Beresford, Soult devised a plan for assaulting Albuera. While Brigadier General Nicolas Godinot's troops attacked the village, Soult intended to take the bulk of his troops in a wide flank attack on the Allied right.

Screened by olive groves and freed from the hassle of Allied cavalry, Soult began his flanking march as Godinot's infantry moved forward with cavalry support.

Battle of Albuera - The Fight is Joined:

To sell the diversion, Soult advanced Brigadier General François Werlé's men on Godinot's left, causing Beresford to reinforce his center. As this occurred, French cavalry, then infantry appeared on the Allied right. Recognizing the threat, Beresford ordered Blake to shift his divisions to face south, while ordering the 2nd and 4th Divisions to move to support the Spanish. Lumley's cavalry was dispatched to cover the right flank of the new line, while Hamilton's men shifted to aid in the fighting at Albuera. Ignoring Beresford, Blake only turned four battalions from General Gen José Zayas' division.

Seeing Blake's dispositions, Beresford returned to the scene and personally issued orders to bring the rest of the Spanish into line. Before this could be accomplished, Zayas' men were assaulted by the division of General Jean-Baptiste Girard. Immediately behind Girard, was General Honoré Gazan's division with Werlé in reserve. Attacking in a mixed formation, Girard's infantry met fierce resistance from the outnumbered Spaniards but were able to slowly push them back. To support Zayas, Beresford sent forward Stewart's 2nd Division.

Rather than forming behind the Spanish line as ordered, Stewart moved around the end of their formation and attacked with Lieutenant Colonel John Colborne's brigade. After meeting initial success, a heavy hail storm erupted during which Colborne's men were decimated by an attack on their flank by French cavalry. Despite this disaster, the Spanish line stood firm causing Girard to halt his assault. The pause in the fighting allowed Beresford to form Major General Daniel Houghton and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Abercrombie's behind the Spanish lines.

Advancing them forward, they relieved the battered Spanish and met Gazan's attack. Focusing on Houghton's segment of the line, the French battered the defending British. In brutal fighting, Houghton was killed, but line held. Watching the action, Soult, realizing he was badly outnumbered, began to lose his nerve. Advancing across the field, Cole's 4th Division entered the fray. To counter, Soult dispatched cavalry to attack Cole's flank, while Werlé's troops were thrown at his center. Both attacks were defeated, though Cole's men suffered heavily. As the French were engaging Cole, Abercrombie pivoted his relatively fresh brigade and charged into Gazan and Girard’s flank driving them from the field. Defeated, Soult brought up troops to cover his retreat.

Battle of Albuera - Aftermath:

One of the bloodiest battles of the Peninsular War, the Battle of Albuera cost Beresford 5,916 casualties (4,159 British, 389 Portuguese and 1,368 Spaniards), while Soult suffered between 5,936 and 7,900.

While a tactical victory for the Allies, the battle proved to be of little strategic consequence as they were forced to abandon their siege of Badajoz a month later. Both commanders have been criticized for their performance in the battle with Beresford failing to use Cole's division earlier in the fight and Soult being unwilling to commit his reserves to the assault.

Selected Sources